One Wrong Step
April 2012

 

[Squall]

“Be careful driving out there,” a shivering nurse states from the open car door, her scrubs doing very little to keep out the frigid air.  “It has been snowing all day, so the roads are pretty nasty.”

Unable to leave any woman untouched by his innate charm, Seifer replies with a flirtatious smile.  “Thanks for the warning, but blizzard or fire storm, I trust Squall here with my life.”

Showing a slight frown, the nurse glances over at me.  “Oh… Well, I’m glad that you have someone to take you home.”

“Me, too,” Seifer says, his gaze also moved to my face.  The man looks pathetic with the gauze between his eyes, the healing bruises at his neck, and the variety of injuries hidden beneath his jacket and borrowed clothes.  Even so, his smile doesn’t show a hint of the pain he must be feeling, the idiot refusing pain medication with the complaint that they mess with his already irregular sleep.

Not looking back at the nurse, Seifer tells her, “We should be going.  Big plans for the night and all.”

Sighing in defeat, the woman closes the passenger door and promptly wraps her arms over her chest before walking briskly to the hospital entrance.

With no other hindrances, I pull the jeep forward onto icy asphalt and exhale a relieved breath at the idea that we’re finally going home.  Falling snow shines within the headlights, a soothing display that seems to capture Seifer’s attention while he slumps down into his seat and shoves his hands deep into the pockets of his torn jacket.  Silence reins while the hospital slowly slips out of view, but I know that it won’t last, not when Seifer has the look of someone who has a difficult thing to ask.

Two blocks later, a police car with its lights flashing but its sirens silent speeds down the other side of the street, the sight of which drawing a shaky breath from Seifer.  He grabs onto his seatbelt and fidgets under the restraint before he finally asks his questions.

“I’ve been wanting to know, but with everyone else around… By any chance, did that detective friend of yours say anything about why Strife went after those kids?  Or about what happened to Zack?”

Selphie couldn’t tell me everything, but it seems Zack tried to confront Cloud about the steroid abuse Riku had mentioned.  Cloud was probably angry, fueled by drugs he couldn’t handle, and terrified about being left behind.  I doubt he meant to kill Zack, not when he was so desperate to bring him back.”

“What does that even mean, ‘to bring him back’?  Hasn’t Zack been dead ever since people noticed he was missing?”

“I assume so, but Roth, or the angel ‘Sephiroth’ as Cloud continues to call him, convinced Cloud that Zack could be resurrected.  Selphie said it was some kind of ritual that required replacing a child’s soul with Zack’s lost spirit…”  I sigh in frustration at the lies told to the impressionable and confused teen.  “Roth twisted Cloud’s grief into something ugly, and I assume Roth enjoyed every minute of it.”

Seifer presses a hand to his forehead and curses under his breath.  “That stupid kid, I’ll bet no one ever told him to not listen to ghosts, especially ones with wings.”

I glance at the blond, curious what kind of history has lead him to that lesson.

“What’s in store for him now?” Seifer asks, his fingers raking back through his hair in a frustrated claw.  “That lady detective said something about a lawyer, right?”

Quistis Trepe,” I reply.  “She owes me a few favors and rarely refuses a chance to defend a minor.  She met with Cloud a couple hours ago and unsurprisingly thinks it’s a pretty solid insanity plea.”

A bitter laugh leaves the blond.  “In other words, the poor fucker is going to get thrown into a mental institution because no one will believe him when he’ll insist that an angel spoke to him and gave him instructions that lead to those kids’ deaths.”

“Isn’t the alternative worse?”

Seifer sighs and admits, “I honestly have no clue.”

Stopping at a red light, I’m able to turn my attention to the struggling man.  Given their similar abilities, it isn’t surprising that Seifer has put himself into Cloud’s position, but I can’t tell if Seifer thinks he would have been stronger than the foster kid.  Without his mother’s example and the stern upbringing of his grandfather, I imagine Seifer would have been easy prey to any malicious ghost that had crossed his path over the years, specifically his father.  However, Seifer did have those important influences in his life, and I refuse to believe that any ghost could convince him to kill an innocent victim.

“I’ve been on that edge, you know,” Seifer says quietly, arguing against my unvoiced thoughts.  “While you can close a door on a human, the same can’t be done to a ghost, and if they talk long enough, it becomes harder and harder to doubt whatever shit they decide to tell you.  Even it’s something you always swore you’d never do.”

“You’re better than that,” I insist.

With a weak smile, Seifer meets my gaze.  “Maybe, but only when I have a reason to be better.”

The light turns green, giving me a good excuse to turn away and focus on the road again.

Another block passes in silence when Seifer asks, “This lawyer, you said she owed you.  Does that mean she’s another one of your investments?”

“…I don’t like that term.”

“In other words, she’s either number two or four,” Seifer presumes with a smirk in his voice.  “So what did you do for her that she’s willing to take on a fucked up kid as a client?”

I briefly glance at the blond, frowning in a reminder that I don’t like sharing other people’s secrets.

“Come on, Loire, I’m not asking about every little detail of that lawyer’s life, just the portion of her life that involves you,” Seifer tries to reason.  “Can you blame me for wanting to know about the great things you’ve done in your life?”

“It’s not that great.  I’ve helped some people when they’ve needed it.”

“See, now you’re being insulting.  You do more than ‘help,’ Squall—you give second chances, and you do it right when a person might think there are no other options.”

I shrug at his melodramatic rephrasing of the word “help.”

“Tell me about the lawyer,” Seifer insists in a serious voice.  “It’d be nice to know about the woman who holds that kid’s life in her hands.”

By his tone, I recognize that Seifer needs some answers before he can find any peace with this situation.  While I can’t share too many details with the blond, I reluctantly decide that the basics shouldn’t cause too much harm, especially if it helps Seifer to trust Quistis.  After all, given our adventures thus far due to Seifer’s visions, there’s no telling what other situation may arise in which a lawyer could be useful.

“I did some jobs for a divorce lawyer years back,” I explain.  “He was scum, but skilled at what he did and willing to pay good money for my services.  Quistis was his paralegal and a dropout from law school.  It was an obvious waste of talent, so I offered to help with her expenses if she would finish her degree.  She eventually agreed, but stubbornly took on her own student loans.”

“Wait a second there, why did she drop out of law school in the first place?  If you think she’s talented, then she must have been top of her class or some shit like that, which means she should have been able to get scholarships.  Did she really need your money that badly?”

“She did have scholarships back in the day,” I admit, “and then she had a daughter.”

After a pause of surprise, Seifer hums in disappointment.  “Let me guess—the father disappeared into the wind once she started to show?”

“More or less,” I reply although I know the full truth that Quistis had an ill-advised affair with a professor at her original university.  She was in love with him, and his response was to give her money for an abortion.  It was a cliché tale that rarely has a happy ending, but at least Quistis was strong enough to realize that her love didn’t have the future she thought it did.

Damn, and she’s doing the lawyer thing while doing the single mom thing, too?”

“As I said, she’s talented,” I remind the blond.  “Cloud is in good hands.”

“But she graduated, what, a couple years ago?  Doesn’t that make her pretty inexperienced for a case like his?  Murdered children and all…” Seifer murmurs, trying his best to be concerned without also insulting my choice in a lawyer.

“She knows her limits.  If the case goes to trial, she’ll solicit the necessary help.”

Seifer snorts at the response, but reluctantly concedes, “If you think she can do it, then I’ll trust your judgment.  You do have a frightening way of being right all of the time.”

I make a sound as if I actually needed his approval.

Shifting in his seat, Seifer tries to look casual when he asks, “So, this Quisty or whatever—is she on that phone of yours, too?”

“She is,” I reply with a held back smile at his failed subtlety, “but that isn’t your real question.”

Seifer grumbles at being called out.  “Alright, I’m not going to say that I lived through everything today to figure out what fake name you gave me, but since I am alive, can you blame me for being curious?  And you did say that you’d tell me.”

I hum in recognition of that promise.  “If you must know, your number is under ‘Canis Lupus’.”

“’Canis Lupus’…?  What the hell is that, a video game character?” Seifer asks, disappointment sounding in his voice.  Knowing the blond, he probably expected something more revealing of my feelings for him or else something that would stroke his already inflated ego.

“It’s the Latin name for ‘wolf’.”

“’Wolf’?” Seifer repeats with a little more interest.  “And what did I do to earn that?”

“Nothing in particular,” I say, resisting the response that I’ve been comparing to him to a stray wolf ever since he reentered my life.

“Right, because that’s an obvious name to give someone at random,” Seifer argues.  “What’s the real reason, Sherlock?”

I glance at the blond to show that I heard his question, but that I have no intention to give him a different answer.

Sighing out a breath, Seifer leans back into his seat.  “You’re a hard one to figure out, Squall, but I’ll get there one of these days.  Just wait and see.”

My hands tighten at the steering wheel when I realize just how much Seifer already knows: my fears associated to my mother’s failing mind, my questionable life whenever I play the role of “Leon,” and worse of all, my senseless love for Seifer that refuses to give me peace.  Aside from my family, no one else has invaded my life so thoroughly, and to make events even stranger, I was the one to drag Seifer into it.  I took him to my mother, I brought him with me on business, and I revealed my feelings under the guise of a lie.  I did all of those things without consideration of the consequences, which means that I’ll only have myself to blame when Seifer realizes that his supposed love for me isn’t anything more than confused gratitude.

~ > < ~

“This brings back fond memories,” Seifer states, his voice light with laughter.

“If you say so,” I mutter under my breath, knowing the truth that Seifer wasn’t particularly pleased with needing my help the first time I brought him to my home.  He had been stiff and wary with every step upward, his eyes shifting beneath shaggy blond hair while his hand clutched onto my shoulder in a nervous twitch.  I remember being irritated by his obvious distrust toward my intentions, but I also couldn’t blame him after everything else he went through in that day.

In contrast to that point in time, Seifer now drapes a relaxed arm over my shoulders and presses his body close to mine such that his heat is easily felt.  His verdant gaze is sharp and obvious while he focuses on my face more than the steps in front of him, causing at least one precarious stumble as we climb the three levels of stairs.  I probably should scold him for that, but like many times before, I’m weak when trapped under his gaze.

“It’s hard to believe it has only been a few weeks since I first let you bring me here,” Seifer continues to ramble.  “Maybe it’s because of our history or something, but it feels like it has been longer than that.”

My free hand lifts to the necklace hidden beneath my sweater.  “A lot has happened,” I comment softly.

“That it has,” Seifer agrees, his hot breath suddenly felt against my ear, “and there’s more to come, yes?”

I can’t stop the shiver of my body, and then immediately regret that uncontrolled response when Seifer’s smile broadens.  “Were you not listening to the doctor when he said to take it easy?”

“I heard him just fine, Sherlock, but if he knew about how long I’ve waited for tonight, he would have given me a prescription for one of those little blue pills, just in case I don’t have enough blood to keep it up.”

“And that’s supposed to convince me to let you have your way?”

“I seem to recall letting you have your way when you were cut up and suffering from blood loss.”

I snort at his argument while reaching for my keys.  “You’re talking about sex, Seifer.  Don’t compare that to my mother’s life.”

Seifer grabs my wrist before I can place a key into the lock, the strength of his hold encouraging me to look at his abruptly serious expression.  “This isn’t just about sex.  I made that assumption when it came to my dreams, and I’m not going to make the same mistake again.”

A mix of emotions fills my chest at his repeated mention of those dreams, and with a sharp twist of my arm, I break free of his grasp.  Unlocking the door, I knock aside Seifer’s arm from my shoulder and step inside while the unbalanced blond is forced to grab onto the door frame.  I reach the kitchen island before I remove my jacket and bend down to unlace my boots.  With an annoyed sigh, Seifer closes the door and switches on the lights to the front room, causing me to wince from the sudden glare.

“You have a good home, Squall,” Seifer murmurs, his soft voice encouraging me to glance at the blond.  His hand lifted and glove removed, Seifer focuses on the small cuts covering his pale skin.  “It’s certainly more doting than you have been.”

Uncertain what he sees or why he feels obligated to mention it, I return to unlacing my boots.  “If you’re hungry, I can make you something,” I suggest, vaguely hoping that it’ll satisfy his need for attention.

Seifer hums at the offer, but ignores it to ask something far more complicated.  “Why does it make you angry whenever I talk about those dreams?”

Standing up, I kick aside my boots and cross my arms over my chest, but I don’t have an easy answer for Seifer.  I’ve disliked the idea of those dreams since the beginning, and it’s frustrating how Seifer continues to bring up their existence as if I’m supposed to be comforted by his glimpses into a future that repeatedly haven’t come to pass.  The idiot probably hasn’t considered that this might be another doomed meeting between us.  At the best, his dreams have shown a night of sex that constantly leads to nothing.  At the worst….

“Do you still think that I’m confused about what I’ve seen?” Seifer questions with a careful step forward.  “Or do you think I’m making it up as a cheap way to trick you into bed?”

A snort of laughter escapes me.  “You aren’t that pathetic.”

“Then it’s because you think I’m wrong,” Seifer reasons, stopping a short distance in front of me.

Against better sense, I glance up at his face and see the desperate gleam in his eyes.  “What am I supposed do, Seifer?  Be grateful that you were able to enjoy a few wet dreams and ignore the fact that you didn’t once consider that they were true futures, let alone one with a man?”

“I’ve already told you that they were more than wet dreams,” Seifer insists defensively.  “They were important to me.”

“That’s right, they were relationships we never had,” I repeat from what stories he has told me, “and because I didn’t confess my feelings, you went down the wrong path.”

Green eyes widen at my accusation.  “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“You told me that things could have been different if you had known about my feelings, which I assume means that it’s my fault nothing happen between us and that you had a difficult life as a result.”

His glare abruptly cold, Seifer lashes out to grab the front of my sweater and jerks me close.  “I never have and never will blame you for my fuck ups, you arrogant piece of shit.  I’m the one who took the wrong step and fell down a hill that was too steep.  I couldn’t stand up again without help, and that’s when you came in.”

“And I helped you, but you continue to bring up those dreams,” I say in an even, controlled tone, knowing that it should only anger Seifer further.  “Is that what you want from me?  Nights of sex that don’t result in something more complicated?”

WhaWhere the hell is this coming from?” Seifer demands with the tightening of his fist at my sweater.  “You should know damned well that I first mentioned those dreams because you were stuck on the dumbass assumption that I’m too straight to ever want a man.  I was trying to prove something to you, Sherlock, but you keep backing away.  Honestly, I’m getting to the point where I have to wonder if you’re actually interested in me or if you’re just fucking with me because you find it entertaining.”

I briefly close my eyes at his accusation and my mind instantly goes back to when Seifer struggled against Roth.  From the moment he stood between me and that ghost, Seifer was covered in the white energy that immediately draws my eye.  It was normal at first, no more impressive than when Seifer fought against his father, but as the fight continued, something changed.  I was cutting Sora free from his bindings when his quiet gasp made me turn and stare in amazement at the pure energy that poured from Seifer’s back.  The white light reached high toward the ceiling, taking the shape of thin, crude wings that both contradicted against Seifer’s nature and yet suited him so amazingly well.  Seifer was beautiful in every meaning of the word, and my heart froze when that pure light flickered and turned black, making me run toward Seifer in a mindless effort to save him…

“I want you,” I say within a breath, opening my eyes as I’m forced to deal with the reminder that I almost lost him today.

“Then why continue to fight me?” Seifer asks, his hand moving to my neck in a strong grasp with his thumb rubbing against the mark he gave me last night.  “What happened to living the best day in your life?”

I shake my head in a slight motion.  “You already gave me everything today.”

“Not everything,” Seifer insists.  “There’s still a whole night ahead of us.”

“You indulged me this morning, and then defeated Roth just like you promised.  We’re even now.  The clothes, food, living expenses… Don’t worry about any of that.”

“You little…”  Not finishing his insult, Seifer searches my face in thought and then asks, “What if that isn’t the debt I want repaid?”

I frown, not recalling any other debt between us.  I did owe him for saving my mother back in high school, but we had agreed his rent was free for that reason.  At least, I had agreed to the idea and Seifer didn’t really argue.  Then perhaps he means how I got him the job at Ward’s, but that was the obvious option to help Seifer repay me financially.  No, there isn’t another significant debt that should concern Seifer, which means the idiot must have another objective in mind…

“Things like money and clothes are easy to pay off, and I’ll get there one of these days,” Seifer explains in a low, enticing voice.  “Instead, since you won’t finish your day, give me one night with you and make it the best night I’ve ever known.  Then I might consider us even.”

“Figures,” I murmur under my breath, reluctantly impressed by the lengths the arrogant blond is willing to go to make a point.  In a clearer voice, I say from exhaustion, “Enough, Seifer.  You don’t have to do this because you think it’s what I want or because you feel responsible.”

His annoyed frown slowly lifts into a determined smirk.  “That’s cute, Squally-boy, but I’m not the honorable white knight you seem to think I am.”

With that as his warning, Seifer forces a hard kiss that shoves me back against the counter and encourages me to grab onto the larger man’s jacket to maintain my balance.  His fingers massage firmly at my neck, the rough skin causing a groan to build in my chest.  Hearing that sound, Seifer drags his tongue over my lower lip in the demand for a deeper kiss, something I can’t refuse when his free hand moves lower and he grabs my ass such that his thumb is felt just above my hole.  I wasn’t going to let it go this far tonight, maybe not ever, and my fingernails dig into his jacket as I imagine making both Seifer and his flesh pay for causing me to lose control like this.

A self-satisfied hum sounds from Seifer just before he leans back for some unknown purpose, his plan ruined when his injured leg abruptly gives out under his weight.  My hold on his jacket keeps the blond from landing too hard on the wood floor, but Seifer still curses in pain when he ultimately slumps into a kneeling position.

“Fucking Hell, it’s like something out there doesn’t want me to have my way with you.”

My breaths ragged, I stare down at tousled golden hair and recognize that I could easily step away at this point.  I could avoid the chance of heartbreak, or worse, the possibly of Seifer deciding to endure my desires as further repayment for my help… but when I release my hold on his jacket, Seifer looks up in a sharp motion.  His eyes burn with a feral light, and even though we’re no longer touching, I can feel the heat of Seifer’s hands on my skin and the caress of his breath at my ear.

Unable to look away, I decide that I have to know.  What Seifer looks like when lost in sex, what he’ll do the morning after, what he’ll do in the days and weeks after that… Whatever the result, I have to know the future and whether or not it includes this impossible man.

A confident smile crossing his lips, Seifer lifts up a requesting hand.  “What do you say, Squall?  Shall we continue this somewhere more comfortable?”

I place my hand under his forearm and pull the larger man to his feet, Seifer groaning in pure exaggeration before he slumps against me.  His arm feels heavy and hot at my shoulders as we move to my bedroom, the short walk made difficult when Seifer becomes interested in my ear.  I pull away when we reach the bed, intending to let Seifer drop down onto the mattress, but he abruptly turns to stand in front of me.  His expression is serious and bold when his hands slide down my sides to the edge of my sweater.  His rough fingers stroke my skin while he slowly removes the layer of clothing, his eyes focused on mine until the very last moment of the fabric moving over my head.

Before the sweater hits the ground, Seifer bends down to press a feather light kiss against the side of the arched burns covering my chest, and I gasp at the immediate effect of his touch.  The burns don’t really hurt, not when his necklace soothes away the pain it had caused, but it’s different when Seifer touches them.  It feels like a current of electricity running under my skin, reaching a place that is strange and secret and shouldn’t be touched by someone as reckless as Seifer.  I try to pull away from the wholly alien sensation, but my retreat causes Seifer to clutch my shoulders in a forceful grasp.

“I thought these didn’t hurt,” Seifer says with a sly glance of green.

“They don’t…” I argue, still trying to find my breath and failing when Seifer presses another kiss at the rim of dark red burns.

“You can barely talk and you expect me to believe your word?” he asks in disbelief.  Hooking a finger around my necklace, Seifer jerks on the chain.  “Let me make you something else.  Something that won’t leave scars the next time you need protection.”

“Don’t even try,” I refuse as I grab his hand before he can attempt to remove the necklace.  “This is mine.”

Seifer fights against a pleased smile.  “While I appreciate the thought, it’d be best to make you something smaller—“

“It’s not painful,” I interrupt when Seifer seems ready to push the point.  “It’s… different than that.”

“Different?  What kind of different are you talking about?  Because from where I’m standing, I can only see burns in the shape of that damned necklace.”

I frown at his narrow-minded focus.  “Is that truly all you can see?”

Seifer blinks in a confused moment, but he doesn’t disappoint when green eyes abruptly glance downward.  An eyebrow arcing away from the gauze at his face, Seifer comments, “Okay, unless you have a major thing for pain, I guess it’s not as bad as I thought.”

I lift my free hand to his chin and encourage the blond to stop staring at my erection.  “I’m not a fragile thing to be handled with care, and it would be best if you remembered that.”

“Trust me, that’s something I’ll never forget,” Seifer says as he gently grasps my raised hand and kisses bruised knuckles, the skin split from punching Cloud one too many times.  “But when there’s a choice that includes you being left unharmed, I don’t understand why you’d choose the option that has burned you twice, possibly scarring you for life.”

I tighten my other hand and weave my fingers between Seifer’s to reach the warm silver held in his hand.  “Because… it protected me with your magic.”

“So it did,” Seifer murmurs thoughtfully, almost sounding surprised.  Turning his hand, he stares at the lion pendant while absentmindedly brushing its mane that flows into a sword.  “You know, my mom showed me this protection trick when she put her spell on Dog.  She was a bit of a romantic, so I didn’t take it seriously when she said that it was a simple spell born from the heart, but now that I think about it…”

“Don’t say it,” I say a bit too abruptly when his thumb moves to brush along the tips of my fingers.

His verdant gaze lifts up from the pendant, revealing a soft but noticeable light.  “And what shouldn’t I say?”

“That you think it was your love that has protected me this entire time.”

Seifer smiles with a smug curl of lips.  “I hate to break it to you, Sherlock, but I think it sounds better from your lips than if I had said it myself.”

Scowling, I get out an adamant, “I didn’t mean—“ before my words are cut short by Seifer forcing his mouth against mine.  My fleeting desire to rebel against his kiss is ruined when Seifer gently presses the lion pendant against my chest.  Our intertwined fingers brush along the ring of burns, the feather-light touch causing my thoughts to scatter except for one trivial fantasy—if this is a taste of Seifer’s love, then I could very well be burned to ashes by the real thing.

Needing leverage, I jerk my injured hand from Seifer’s and bury my fingers into golden strands.  It’s pathetically easy to convince myself that I can grab onto his hair and pull Seifer away if he starts to ask too much of me, not that I stop Seifer for even a breath while allowing him to deepen the kiss.  His mouth is hot and tastes faintly of cherry from the Jell-O that one of the nurses smuggled for the blond before his discharge.  It’s a wonder he isn’t hungrier after the meager dinner, but given the way he bites and licks within our kiss, I’m fairly certain that he’s confused about what urge he’s trying to satisfy.

Surprising me, Seifer releases my necklace to free his hand, but he doesn’t have any intention to break the kiss.  Instead, he clumsily continues the kiss while removing his heavy wool jacket, his smile felt when I help to pull down on a stubborn sleeve.  My hand moves to his chest and I breathe a laugh at the feel of my uncle’s shirt on the blond.  The size is almost large enough for the collar to slip off Seifer’s shoulder.  It’s not a look that works well for the former quarterback.

“Don’t laugh,” Seifer complains into our kiss.  “If you laugh, my dick shrinks and your ogre of a godfather wins.”

Hn, that would be disappointing,” I agree dutifully, not that I can stop my amused smile.

“That’s it,” Seifer announces before pulling back and yanking the shirt over his head.  Tossing it onto the bed, Seifer points angrily at the piece of clothing.  “This is the plan: we’re going to have fucking sex on this fucking shirt and give it back to the old man without washing it.  That’ll teach him to stop messing with my head.”

Wanting Seifer close again, I jerk the larger man forward by grabbing onto the belt that keeps his borrowed pants from falling down.  “Ward delivered these clothes because I gave his duplicate key to you and he had no other way to get your clothing.”

Seifer frowns at my logic.  “The bastard could’ve bought me new clothes.  He still owes me an apology, you know.”

“Perhaps, but I think that’s why he brought you something to wear,” I say while gazing up into irritated green.  “He helped me to bring you home.”

With a breath of laughter, Seifer contends, “I can’t imagine the old man wanting to help me out of the hospital for the purpose of getting me into your bed, but if it’s true, then I’ll have to thank him the next time I see him.”

“Don’t antagonize him,” I warn, but my words fall upon deaf ears judging by the blond’s self-satisfied grin.  It’s even worse when I feel enamored by his complete arrogance and foolish disregard for a man who has a license to carry a concealed weapon.  Kissing the moron probably isn’t the best way to admonish him either.

I pull at Seifer’s belt with blind hands, the soft leather easily giving way as I release the belt buckle.  His borrowed pants drop to the floor with a heavy noise, and after nearly bringing us both to the ground, Seifer kicks himself free of the voluminous material.  I move my hands to his naked waist and drag my fingers forward to feel his flesh and bones beneath my touch, slowly reaching lower to his pelvis and coarse golden hair, and even lower to the heat of his swelled cock.

Seifer shudders with a groan of pleasure, but retreats in an awkward bend to make our kiss last a moment longer.  “Not again, Sherlock,” Seifer mutters against my lips.  “This time, I’m touching you.”

With a firm hand at my shoulder, Seifer guides me to the bed and encourages me to take a seat.  He lifts both of his hands to my face and brushes back my hair before bracing my head in his hands.  Green eyes shine with harsh thought before Seifer bends down to place a kiss next to the stitched skin between my eyes.  I think to remind the blond that my injury isn’t his fault, but Seifer seems to anticipate my words and shushes quietly before placing a kiss against my jaw.

From there, Seifer moves lower to my neck and then my chest, his fingers and tongue barely avoiding dark burns even as my other scars and injuries appear to be free game.  With subtle intent, Seifer gradually places more of his weight against me with every kiss until I find myself lying down on the mattress and his hands on my hips.  He stares for a moment at the clear bulge of my pants, and then smiles an awkwardly fond smile before sliding a hand between my legs.  I shiver at the direct touch, instinctively raising my hips for more of what I never thought Seifer would give me.  Taking advantage, Seifer efficiently removes my pants and boxers to toss them in the general direction of the floor.

Moving onto the bed, Seifer lies down next to me with a warm light to his eyes.  He places a hand to rest on my stomach, the tips of his fingers teasingly close to my erection.  “Will you forgive me if I pass on giving you a blowjob tonight?  I’m not certain how much my knee can take.”

“It’s okay if you can’t do it.  You don’t need an excuse.”

Seifer frowns while leaning closer.  “It’s not a matter of can’t, Squall, and the next time we do this, I’ll prove it.”

“Next time?” I ask flippantly, but barely get the words out before Seifer is kissing me again.

His hand slides downward such that his calloused fingers rub at the base of my penis, the indirect attention making my dick feel sore instead of relieved.  I groan angrily at his teasing, to which Seifer smirks into our kiss, but he doesn’t prolong my suffering.  A single finger strokes the underside of my length as if appraising its size and shape before Seifer takes a firm hold of my dick.  His hand is rough and vaguely moist with sweat as he pumps in even strokes that match the rhythm of his tongue in my mouth.  I quickly lose my breath at his maneuverings, and with my chest starting to hurt, I’m forced to grab his shoulder and forcibly break the kiss to save myself, not that it’s an easy matter to regain my breath when Seifer decides to use the opportunity to boldly stare at me while he brings my body closer and closer to release.

It’s with a hard squeeze and his lips mouthing the words, “Fucking beautiful,” that I come into Seifer’s hand.

My throat burns from the strength of my resulting groan, but it’s satisfying enough when Seifer echoes with a more pained sound as my hand manages to dig into fresh cuts on his shoulder.  “Don’t say… ‘beautiful’…” I pant while pressing my fingers harder into an ugly bruise.

Seifer chuckles through his pain.  “Have you ever watched yourself while masturbating?  Because you don’t have a case otherwise.”

I glare at the hopeless blond, wondering if he actually believes in that warped logic of his.

Lifting his hand, Seifer firsts sniffs and then tentatively licks at the come soiling his palm.  His nose wrinkles in vague distaste, but he stubbornly continues to lap at the warm semen.

“Moron,” I say within a laugh.  To save him, I grab his hand and remove the lingering mess with my tongue, making certain to place two of his fingers into my mouth and suck harder than necessary while cleaning the digits.

“Fucking hell,” Seifer groans with an uncoordinated thrust against the side of my leg.  “Condoms.  You have condoms, yes?”

Somewhat reluctantly, I release his fingers with a slick sound and a heavy lick.  “Where do most people keep things like that?”

Seifer blinks in a dull moment before looking across the bed at the single nightstand.  Attempting the dexterity of a teenaged virgin, Seifer tries to reach the nightstand without aggravating his various injuries, but while he gets the drawer open, he puts too much weight on his bad leg when he attempts to look inside.  Sighing at his pathetic display, I shove Seifer onto his back and climb over him to sit heavily on his stomach.

“Stop making your injuries worse,” I say a bit angrily.

“Normally, I’d agree with you there, Sherlock, but…”  Seifer places his hands at my sides and rubs his thumbs along my ribs, somehow discovering that sensitive spot in the few opportunities I’ve allowed him.  “I want this, and I’m afraid that if we don’t do this tonight, you’ll slip through my hands forever.”

Seifer—“

“I’ve already wasted too many chances,” he interrupts sharply, “and I can’t afford another one.  Not when I’m this close.”

My heart feels sore at his words, and when it becomes too hard to meet his desperate gaze, I reach over Seifer to grab a pair of condoms and a small bottle of lube.  I drop one of the condoms onto Seifer’s chest while I put my teeth to the other one, freeing it from its wrapper.  While it could be educational to make the blond do this for me, I decide for the sake of efficiency that it’ll be best to prepare myself instead.  Ignoring Seifer’s curious stare, I place the condom over my fingers and coat the sheath with a healthy amount of lube before reaching for my asshole.

My fingers slip in with practiced ease, and I almost laugh at the irony of fingering my hole when Seifer is right beneath me.  I’ve spent too many nights with one hand up my ass and the other at my cock while imagining Seifer as a replacement for my icy touch.  Even now, my eyes drift close from pleasure and my mind automatically supplies the same old fantasies of the clueless blond, the images practically memories given the number of times I’ve had them as a hormonal teenager.  It says something when the warm body between my legs feels more like the illusion than my fantasy of the jersey-wearing blond asking for me to help him remove his numerous constraining pads.

The sharp tear of a wrapper startles me out of the old fantasy, and looking down at Seifer, I watch as he spits out a torn sliver of plastic.

Noticing my stare, Seifer grins and shows the unwrapped condom.  “You were planning to share that fine ass of yours, right?”

I briefly consider arguing that my fingers are enough, but it’s a lie before I even finish the thought.  Leaning forward with an arm braced next to Seifer’s head, I tell the idiot, “Put the damned thing on already.”

Seifer’s grin widens before he kisses my mouth in a rough manner, apparently pleased with my demand.  I feel his hands slip between our bodies, and when I’m certain that he’s ready, I push up from the mattress and give myself a final stretch before removing my fingers and tossing aside the used condom.  Green eyes intense and unmoving while focused on my face, I shift my hips forward and reach back to guide Seifer’s cock to where I need it.  I ease slowly onto his length, savoring each inch and twinge of muscle as I take Seifer deep into me.

“Fucking shit…” Seifer breathes into a groan.

My own breath lost, I don’t have I mocking comment for the man who hasn’t felt the tightness of an asshole around his cock.  Unable to go all the way with the first try, I place a hand at Seifer’s chest and push up to the rim of the reddened head before dropping back down to get all of him.  I gasp when his dick brushes against the perfect spot, something that usually takes numerous thrusts and blind luck.  Leave it to the obnoxious blond to stumble upon it on the second try.

Surprising me, Seifer grabs my arm and lifts my hand such that I’m forced to wrap my fingers around his wrist to steady myself.  His flirtatious grin replaced with something sober and resolute, Seifer doesn’t say anything while gazing at me, his stare somehow making me feel naked and exposed despite my already bare state.  I shiver at the disturbing sensation, and needing to stop that stare of his, I begin a careful rhythm of thrusting myself repeatedly on his heated cock.  It’s a mild relief when he finally narrows his gaze in pleasure.

His supporting hand clutching onto my arm, I move harder and faster than I have with previous partners, knowing that I stupidly trust Seifer more than anyone else.  The bed creaks in an awkward off-beat to our heavy breaths, the collar of Ward’s shirt brushes against my knee with every push, and tiny pearls of sweat shine on Seifer’s chest before falling toward the dark bruise decorating his stomach, all of it reminding me that this is truly happening and not a crude fantasy that can’t match the imperfections of reality.  Even so, my heart aches at my intention of tonight being a onetime occurrence.

I feel Seifer’s stomach tightening beneath me, and waiting for his release, I don’t anticipate his free hand lifting to my bare chest.  An unrestrained cry escapes me at the touch of his fingers against my burns, the sensation going straight to my heart as if his hand was trying to caress away the pain I feel whenever I think too hard about a future without Seifer.  Looking at his face, I find that damned viridian gaze focused on me with its frightening intensity and my irritation gets the better of me.

I act before thinking about it, my free hand grabbing the gauze taped between his eyes and ripping it off to cause him the same pain he has caused me for years.  Seifer winces at the attack, but I soon realize the fault in my plan when his eyes find me again.  Green irises seem brighter without the contrast of white cotton, and attracted to the sight of fresh stitches in pale flesh, I can’t look away from his face.

“Squall…” Seifer breathes while wrapping his hand behind my neck and using the support to lift himself up.  He kisses in a hard press, his hands griping tightly when his release follows a moment later.  His body pressed against mine, I feel his orgasm course through his body in sharp jolts, the sensation coaxing my own release as I curse into Seifer’s mouth.

Our kiss softens as our bodies cool down, and with a shaky breath, Seifer pulls away to rest his head on my shoulder.  “Damn it, I’m so dizzy right now.”

Not expecting that as his first comment, a scoff of laughter escapes me.  “I told you it was too soon.”

“And I keep trying to tell you that this happened far too late,” Seifer complains, his hand moving into my hair in a stroking motion.

I don’t try to argue, knowing that it’ll only make him more determined about his beliefs when it comes to the future.

After a few more calming breaths, Seifer says in a soft, almost embarrassed voice, “This was better.”

“’Better’…?”

“Than those dreams you hate so much,” Seifer clarifies.  “They pale in comparison to the reality of being with you.”

A fool romantic, that’s what I should be calling him while escaping with my heart intact, but my voice doesn’t sound and I find myself leaning more of my weight against him, trusting the support of his larger body.  Obviously Seifer isn’t the only fool here.

“I don’t know what you thought would happen tonight, but now I know that this isn’t a fleeting curiosity or a confused whim, and it’s definitely not a case of misdirected gratitude.  If any of that was true, then I wouldn’t want to ask more of you,” he reasons with a kiss to my shoulder.

“Everyone thinks that after sex,” I comment in a rough voice.

“Fair enough, but does everyone feel the terror that I’m feeling at this moment?  That you might turn your back on me before I have the chance to prove myself and make you mine?”

Seifer…”  I’m silenced with his hand pressed to my mouth.

“Don’t say anything.  Just… stay with me for the rest of tonight.  You can promise that much, right?”

Seifer sounds exhausted, and while he has plenty of reason to be tired, this seems to resonate from somewhere deeper.  I pull back carefully, and with a hand lifted to his damp hair, I suggest softly, “You could use a shower.  Maybe it’ll make you feel better.”

His eyelids drooping, Seifer smiles a pathetic smile.  “That doesn’t sound like the best plan there, Sherlock.  I might slip and crack my skull open.”

“I’ll be there to help you,” I insist.

His lips twisting into a sardonic smirk, he leans forward and presses his forehead against mine, the scratch of stitches felt against my skin.  “So cruel, Squally-boy.  So fucking cruel…”

I frown at his tone, but before I can question him, he exhales a strange sigh before slumping backward.  I grab his arms before Seifer falls too far, and when I notice his closed eyes and limp position, I sigh softly at the man for passing out on me.  After helping him to lie down, I move a hand to his neck in a paranoid need to feel for his pulse, which beats strong despite his state of low blood pressure.  For all I know, that may be the problem itself.

I pull free of the blond, the noise loud and awkward without Seifer awake to say something obnoxious or to request a second round.  I move to the bathroom and use a large cloth to wipe down my body, not in the mood for a shower when it could disturb Seifer.  Wiping sweat from my chest, I try to ignore the twinge of pain the cloth causes along my burns, even as I wonder what will happen once those burns heal.  Will Seifer’s touch ever reach as deeply as it did tonight?  And even as the thought crosses my mind, I know that it doesn’t matter.  Seifer always does something unexpected and incredible, just when I think I have everything figured out about him, and that’s what makes me addicted to the blond.

Chucking the cloth into the laundry bin, I grab a couple more cloths to wet and take back into the bedroom.  Seifer hadn’t moved so much a finger, and I can’t stop a smile at the sight of him stretched across my bed in such a vulnerable manner.  I quickly wipe down his legs and take note of the spots of blood on his bandaged leg, nothing surprising after his determination to push himself tonight.  Deciding to change the gauze in the morning, I instead place more focus on cleaning the come from his dick and stomach.

When I use a fresh cloth on his chest, I focus a bit too long on his hardened nipples, the stray thought coming to mind that I haven’t had the chance to taste them yet.  I shake my head to chase away inappropriate thoughts and force myself to move to his neck, at which point I notice the partial opening of his eyelids, no more than a slit to reveal dull green.

Seifer?” I say softly, not entirely certain he’s awake.

Seifer places a limp hand over mine and rubs his thumb along bruised knuckles.  “Will you always care for me like this?”

His eyes and voice suggest that the blond is barely conscious, and with the comfort of knowing that he shouldn’t remember my words in the morning, I decide to answer truthfully.  “I won’t abandon you, Seifer.  I can’t stop loving you, even when I’ve wanted to.”

The corner of his lips quirks into a smile.  “Then I have time…. Always should be… long enough…”

His hand slipping from mine, I sigh at the hypocrisy of Seifer calling his mother a romantic when he obviously has the same trait, even when half-asleep.  I finish cleaning the sweat from his neck and face, careful of his new stitches that look red and angry.  I pull up the comforter, and somehow without waking him, I maneuver the larger man beneath the warm covering.

I hesitate for the length of a few heartbeats before crawling beside Seifer, knowing that he expects me to spend the rest of the night with him.  I try to put my back to him, but I don’t last long before I face the unconscious blond and simply gaze at his face.  I’m afraid of the morning, although I don’t know exactly why.  Maybe it’s because neither of us have had relationships that lasted longer than a night or two of sex, or maybe it’s because a good night of sleep has the ability to give people a fresh perspective about the choices they need to make.  Either way, it’s safer to watch Seifer asleep and with me in this present moment than close my eyes and risk a morning without him.

So much safer… and I hate that only Seifer can make me feel afraid of the future.

~ > < ~

“I knew it,” is the first thought that comes to mind, seconds before I’m conscious enough to realize that it’s morning and I’m alone in my bed.  I stare dumbly at the empty pillow that Seifer had used last night, his impression left behind.  Sunlight manages to sneak in between closed blinds, creating bright blocks of light on the wrinkled comforter as a poor substitute for Seifer’s warmth.  My body feels heavy while lying there, and even when I know there are things I could do, I have no desire to move.

And then I smell burnt cinnamon.

Confused, I sit up and shift my gaze to the quiet noise of falling fabric that turns out to be my robe dropping from the bed.  Knowing that I didn’t put it there, I slip off the mattress and reluctantly put on the robe when my bare skin shivers at the winter chill that no heater can completely chase away.  With quiet steps, I move to the doorway of my bedroom and lean against the frame to watch the unexpected sight of Seifer in the kitchen.

Wearing his boxers and an untied robe, Seifer hums something under his breath while his hips sway and his bare feet move in a vague dance.  His hands are occupied by a frying pan and a large spatula, and from the sight of the mess on my counter, it looks like he’s making French toast.  While my stomach grumbles in hunger, I don’t have any desire to ruin whatever is happening here, at least not until I can understand it.

Eventually Seifer notices my stare and turns around to reveal that he didn’t bother to put on a shirt.  That appealing fact, however, doesn’t linger in my mind for very long when Seifer smiles brightly in a fashion I haven’t seen since his football days, and damn me if it doesn’t make my heart skip a beat just like it did in the past.

“About time you woke up,” Seifer says.  “You didn’t even blink when I tried to continue our activities from last night.”

With an eyebrow lifted, I question incredulously, “You molested me in my sleep?”

“I didn’t get my full night of pleasure,” Seifer complains as if it excuses his actions.  “You were really out of it, though.  I don’t remember you looking that tired last night, but I guess we both overdid things a bit.”

I don’t bother to correct him, not wanting him to know that I wasted most of the night staring at his face and occasionally taking the risk to touch his lips.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m starved.  I’ve already gone through one helping of breakfast and I could go through about a dozen more,” he says while pulling two pieces of French toast from the frying pan and placing them on a plate before cutting them in half.  Uncovering a second plate, Seifer sprinkles a healthy amount of powdered sugar over the two servings, the sight reminding me of the thick snowfall from yesterday.  With the plates in hand, Seifer moves to the kitchen table and sets the homemade breakfast onto fresh place mats with silverware ready to go.

“What are you doing, Seifer?” I ask, confused by his act of playing house.

Seifer chuckles at the question.  “Only you would feel paranoid about a lover preparing you breakfast.”

Crossing my arms over my chest, I frown at his easy use of the word “lover.”

“To answer your question, I had a bit of a revelation when I woke up this morning.  For days, I’ve been pushing you for an answer that I thought you didn’t want to give me, but you already have, haven’t you?  Shit, you’ve probably answered me ten-times over, but I was too stupid to figure out how you’re the type to answer with actions instead of words.”

“What are you talking about?”

Smiling at my stubbornness, Seifer crosses the room to stand in front of me.  “You could have shown me the door at any point in the last few weeks, but you didn’t.  I even gave you the opportunity a couple times, but you insisted that I was allowed to stay if that’s what I needed.  You’ve been giving me the chance that I’ve wanted, and I didn’t recognize it for what it was.”

“I did that because you needed help,” I correct, “not because I thought there could or should be something else between us.”

Seifer lifts a hand to brush dark bangs from my face.  “Believe what you want, but whenever I look into your eyes, I see how much you want from me.  I don’t know what I can give you, but from my point of view, I have time on my side.”

My heart stalls at his choice in words and I try to convince myself that he was barely conscious when I answered him last night and that he wasn’t in the right state of mind to understand my words.  He couldn’t have been, or I wouldn’t have answered him like I did.

His smile shifting into a smirk full of confidence, Seifer says, “Always is a long time, Squall, and I’m determined to use every minute of it to make you love me even more.”

An argument forms in my mind, but my parted lips are quickly covered by a hot, needy mouth that tastes of cinnamon and vaguely of orange.  Without thought on my part, my hands slide up his bare chest until I grab onto his shoulders, broad and strong beneath my fingers.  His arm wraps around my waist while his other hand moves to my neck in a massaging motion, drawing an appreciative groan from me.  I almost forget that I should be arguing with Seifer.  Almost.

Pulling away for breath, I keep my hands at Seifer’s shoulders to prevent another attack.  “You’ll get bored.”

“Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,” Seifer says while placing a kiss against my injured hand, “but despite everything else you know about me, I have one secret that you won’t be able to guess.  A dark secret that came to me last night.”

I stare at him, suspicious about this supposed “secret.”

Smiling, Seifer bends down to whisper into my ear, “Oh no, I’m not going to make it that easy on you.  How about… a year.”

“A year?”

Seifer hums in confirmation.  “Ask me again in a year, Squally-boy, and maybe I’ll tell you.”

I scoff, annoyed at my own expectation of learning something new from the blond.  “You’re assuming that you’ll be here after another year.”

“That’s the point, Sherlock,” Seifer says as he pulls back and gazes at me with shining green eyes.  “Do you think you can wait that long?”

It’s a cheap challenge on his part, but stupidly enough, I feel more at ease with the idea of accepting this challenge rather than his constant request to let him prove his love for me.  Logically, I know that is the exact game he is playing, to trick me into an easy pledge that leads to the same result, but it’s a hard game to refuse.

“What do you say, Squall?”

“…This ‘secret’ had better be worth it.”

Seifer smiles with a show of white teeth.  “You can tell me after you hear it.”

I narrow my gaze on the blond, my skepticism heightening such that I’m certain the idiot wants the time to make something up.  Why he needs the length of a year, I haven’t a clue, but it’s wholly suspicious and I don’t like suspicious.  Before I can question him, though, Seifer places a finger at my lips and scolds me with a few tuts.

“A year, Sherlock, and not a minute sooner than that,” Seifer insists.  Taking a step back, he reaches for my arm and pulls me toward the kitchen table.  “Now, the first batch was pretty dark… well, half-burnt, but I think I did a better job for this batch.  I’m not the chef you are, but it’s my grandma’s recipe, so be gentle when critiquing me.”

I let Seifer drag me to the table, and staring at the back of his neck, I muse that Seifer has suddenly taken the lead on this supposed path of his.  He seemed so lost and wary weeks ago, and then he let me push him in whatever direction I thought was right.  It’s a relief to watch him take his future into his hands again, and while his choice in paths makes me anxious, I need to know—how much stronger he’ll become, what other lives he’ll save, and even what fake secret he is hiding from me.

I want to know everything that Seifer will reveal to me, even if it takes another decade or a lifetime before I’m finally satisfied.

==========================================================================

[Epilogue]

[Seifer]

[A year later, plus a handful of days…]

Today is one of those weird winter days in Garden when the sun is out shining and the temperature is warm enough that a person can get away with wearing a light jacket, but there’s still a couple feet of snow piled up everywhere.  It’s pretty much a kid’s dream to be able to play in the snow without being bundled to the point of immobility, and with that freedom, a horde of kids have taken over one of the larger parks.  While some take advantage of the good weather to use the swings and other playground equipment, most of the kids have decided to build snow forts and wage war with snowballs.  Lingering on the outer rim of that chaos, parents sit on park benches and chat over their high-priced coffee about the latest child-rearing advice on the market.

It would be a perfect winter day except for the fact that a child is missing and in serious trouble, not that anyone has noticed as of yet.  The kids continue to scream with laughter and roughhouse in the snow, the activity annoyingly similar to the signs of a child fighting off a predator.  I don’t know whether to be furious or disheartened when a piercing squeal doesn’t catch the fleeting attention of a parent, not even a vague lift of a head.

“Is this the place?”

I glance over my shoulder to find Squall standing at my side, his steps silent despite the icy snow covering the parking lot.  I feel calmer just looking at the brunet, but that doesn’t stop me from making a small sidestep that puts us shoulder-to-shoulder.  He’s not a warm man, but I can feel his strength and energy with that simple touch, and my confidence strengthens with the hope that a child isn’t going to die today.  Not if Squall can help it.

Seifer…”

“She came in that thing,” I say while nodding toward a minivan with stick-figure stickers on the back window.  The collection supposedly represents the two parents, five kids of various ages, and pair of dogs, one of the more ridiculous fads I’ve seen.  Muttering under my breath, I complain, “It’s like the parents want every predator on the block to know what selection of children are available for the taking.”

“I doubt that was their intent,” Squall argues dryly, his pale eyes scanning the crowd of children.

“Don’t bother,” I say, already getting a good look of the park.  “That snowman over there was maybe half-finished when she walked off, and since she isn’t in the parking lot, the fucker must already have her.”

“Then where to next?”

A shadow of a smile crosses my lips while I linger on the dark-haired beauty—always logical, always looking for the next step forward instead of dwelling on missed opportunities, and it’s no wonder that I couldn’t do this without him.  Squall frowns at my lack of urgency, and while I know better, I can’t help my baser desire to be selfish.  I had such great plans for this morning, far better than running around and looking in various parks for an idiot girl who would fall for the cliché “I need help looking for my lost dog” trick that every pedophile has in his bag of tricks.

And even as I think it, I realize that I’m a horrible person for blaming that innocent soul for any of this, but damn it, it’s my fucking birthday and I never was very good at playing the hero.

Squall crosses his arms over his chest and gives me the look that says children always come first, and me acting like a child doesn’t count for anything.  It’s amazing that he has put up with my nonsense thus far.

I sigh and place my back to the park to scan the forested area behind the parking lot and eventually set eyes on a collection of bushes that the girl thought would be a potential hiding spot for a scared dog.  Without needing to say anything to Squall, I start off in that direction and try to remember the flashes in my dream—a tree with several initials carved into the trunk and a small pond that’s little more than a sheet of ice—but as we move farther into the surrounding forest, my spotty dream becomes unnecessary when the random mess of footprints in snow gradually dwindles until two distinct sets of footsteps are the only ones to continue farther.

After another hundred feet and beyond a second clump of bushes, I pause when the smaller footprints abruptly change from neat, defined imprints in snow and take on the signature of a child being dragged in an unexpected and unwanted direction.  It’s a simple assumption to know that this is where the pervert used his leash on the girl’s neck, and while she didn’t have the strength to do much, my dream showed her getting in a solid punch to his nuts.  I almost hope the bastard was erect when she did it.

Lost in my thoughts, I start and turn at a light touch to my shoulder, Squall right behind me.  The brunet signals that he heard something down the way and that he’s going around from behind.  I nod and pull out a small camera from my jacket pocket, a wise piece of advice from my lawyer when I was suspected of a crime that, in actuality, I had tried to prevent.  The victim had been knocked out and the real mugger was quite the liar, but footage from a security camera eventually backed up my version of events.  Quisty told me that I should bring my own camera the next time I decide to play cowboy, and while she may have been facetious, it was still good advice.

The camera switched on and recording, I move in the direction that Squall had indicated and eventually hear the angry mutterings and quiet groans of complaint that had attracted Squall’s attention.  Cursing my previous stupidity to drag my feet when a little girl was in trouble, I increase my pace as best I can in layers of snow and stumble upon a picnic area that hasn’t been touched since the first snowfall.  Untouched, that is, until this pervert found another use for it.

Startled by my entrance, the fucker stares at me from under the bill of an old baseball cap while he kneels on a concrete picnic table and keeps his hand down unzipped pants.  Everything about the man is unremarkable from his average height, to his slight pudge of a stomach, to the dark hair that sticks out from under his cap.  While there may be a handful of people who will say they always suspected there was something funny about him, the fact remains that the pervert has been allowed to hurt babies for who knows how long. 

His current target lies limply beneath him with a bright blue leash loose around her neck and her pants tossed to the side.  Her knitted hat is still in place, the decorative panda ears covered in snow.  Light brown eyes gaze dully in my direction, but I can’t tell if she’s aware of anything, which may be for the better.

“What the fuck are you doing to that little girl?” I ask, trying to sound sincerely surprised for the camera.

The man blinks and stutters, “I… I found her… like…”

Not bothering to finish his lie, the pervert pushes off the table and drags the girl with him, one of his hands tightening the leash at her throat and the other clutching onto her arm in a death grip.  “Back off or she’s dead.”

“Hey now, you don’t need to get that serious,” I say with arms raised in surrender and the camera still aimed in his general direction, “but I’ve got to warn you that there’s no way in Hell I’m letting you finish whatever business you have planned for that girl.”

Twitchy and looking like a rabbit ready to bolt, the man asks in rushed words, “What are you doing here?  Were you following me?  Why do you have that camera?”

“Really?  We’re playing that game where I did something wrong?”

Obviously not a man made for confrontation, the pervert takes a nervous step backward.  “You don’t understand.  She… She came to me.  I didn’t force her.  I didn’t…”

In an abrupt move, the man releases the girl to run off in a panic.  I hurry to help the girl left in the snow, not concerned about the escaping pervert when our little discussion gave Squall plenty of time to circle around and move behind the man.  The fucker notices Squall about two steps too late, and without the dexterity or foothold to avoid the quietly enraged brunet, the man can’t dodge the roundhouse kick that lands solidly against the side of his head.  The pervert falls hard in the snow, causing a brief explosion of snowflakes before Squall is on him with the heel of his boot lodged in the guy’s crotch.  Thankfully Squall’s hand toying with a switchblade stays out of camera view.

“Easy now, Squall,” I say, even though I’d love to see the fucker lose his nuts.  “This girl doesn’t need any more trauma for today.”

Squall makes a grunting noise that doesn’t sound very much like he’s agreeing.

With a shake of my head, I switch off the camera and move my attention to the poor girl who had started to struggle against me.  I give her the freedom she wants and reach over to grab her discarded pants.  “Sorry, they’re probably wet and colder than shit, but better than nothing, right?”

She snatches the pants from me, but doesn’t immediately put them on.  Amber eyes wary, she glances between me and Squall.  “Who… who are you?” she asks in a broken voice.

“Two guys who heard something suspicious,” I reply with a careful smile.  “I’m Seifer and that angry guy who isn’t allowed to do anymore damage is Squall.”

She stares for a thought-filled second before saying, “I’m Yuffie.”

“Well, I would say it’s nice to meet you, kid, but circumstances could’ve been better.”  I pull out my cell phone, select Selphie’s number, and nod at the girl.  “Put those pants on.  I’m calling the police, which means this place is going to be swarming with cops and your family in about two minutes here.”

Instead of being worried about her bare state, Yuffie’s face scrunches into a pained expression before I suddenly have an armful of a sobbing and hysterical kid.  Sighing, I place a hand at her head and get in a couple of consoling words before Selphie’s voice sounds over the phone.  Soon enough I have the lady detective yelling at me in one ear and the girl crying against my shoulder next to my other ear, and with a pointed glare at Squall, I mouth the words, “Help me.”

Squall smirks faintly, but doesn’t move except to place more weight on the pervert’s dick, drawing a pathetic squeal from the equally pathetic man.

I sigh, once again bemoaning the wasted hours of my birthday.  What a day to turn fucking thirty.

~ > < ~

“Come on, Squall, I know you have a thing about family and all, but can’t we call in sick this once?  There’s still time.”

The brunet glances at me from the driver’s seat of his relatively new truck, something of a birthday and celebration gift wrapped into one high-priced present from Laguna when the man’s first book in years became a surprising best seller this summer.  The critics gave high reviews for the story that begins with a female warrior battling through a destroyed city in search of her child and gradually reveals itself as the story of a mental patient unable to communicate with her family.  Raine was his obvious inspiration, but according to Squall, Laguna always uses his family and friends within his tales.

Even though it’s apparent that Squall isn’t about to budge on dinner with the family, I knock my head against the side window and continue to push the point.  “Seriously, we spent all morning looking for that girl, and then we had to spend the rest of the afternoon giving police reports and dealing with that girl’s family.  Do you know how hard that father slapped my back and how many times?  If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was trying to beat the shit out of me.”

“You promised my mother that if she was released in time for the holidays, we would help her make a big dinner for the family.  Today happened to be the best day for everyone involved.”

“Not for me,” I complain, but it’s becoming obvious that I’m not going win.  Despite removing Roth from her life, Raine had been severely traumatized for years and recovery wasn’t something that could be achieved in a day, let alone a handful of months.  The one goal that drove her forward was sharing Christmas with her family and friends, and like so many years before, my birthday somehow became the innocent victim to Christmas.  I was prepared to make the sacrifice of my evening for a leisurely morning, but then that vision came last night…

“Endure it for a couple of hours,” Squall concedes as he turns onto the street leading to the Loire house, “and then we can do whatever you want.”

My mood instantly perked by the promise, I sit up straighter in my seat.  “Don’t toy with me, Squall.  I’m a desperate, starving man.”

Squall scoffs at my dramatics, but doesn’t completely suppress a curl to his full, perfect lips.  If he wasn’t driving right now, I’d kiss him until he was in the bed of the truck and buck-naked, something that would be a repeat of Squall’s birthday and a christening of the truck, but worthwhile all the same.

The Loire house is visible within a couple of blocks given the large inflatable polar bear that bobs in a slight breeze, and if it was darker out, the numerous Christmas lights would have stood out even farther back.  We’re not the first to arrive judging by Ellone’s minivan parked in the driveway, and I cringe at the new addition of stick figure stickers on the back window.  I may have to ask Laguna if he has a razor blade that I can use to scratch the damn things off before Ellone notices or can argue.

The truck parked on the street, we walk up the drive to the front door.  I hear the distinct laughter from Squall’s niece and nephew beyond the door, the kids apparently enjoying themselves before being forced to act civil during a lengthy dinner.  Squall knocks between decorations of clumsily painted pinecones, the brunet showing a vague smile as I assume he heard the kids, too.

When the door swings open, I stare in surprise at Faith and Alec dressed in very bright and very tropical shirts that have no place on anyone younger than sixty.

“Happy birthday, Uncle Seifer!” the kids yell somewhat in sync, then followed by a louder chorus of, “Happy birthday!”

Dumbfounded, I blink at the kids and then look past them to find the room a lot more crowded than I was expecting.  A lot more colorful, too.  The Christmas tree I saw just the other week is gone, replaced by a small palm tree with a fake parrot sitting on top.  The stockings are missing, the fireplace mantle instead lined with bottles of rum and toys of random exotic animals, mostly monkeys.  The best, however, are the number of loud, tropical shirts in this single room, each one tackier than the next.

“What in the world is happening here?” I ask, looking at Squall if only to save my eyes from the burn of bright colors.

Before he can answer, a small hand tugs at my jacket.  “Uncle Seifer, Uncle Seifer, do you really hate Christmas?”

Ellone sighs out her son’s name, a scold that is barely heard overly the chuckles from the other adults in the room.  I, however, like the blunt nature of young kids, and with a grin, I kneel down to be eye-to-eye with the boy.  Alec is a cute brat with shaggy brown hair, a slight lisp, and deep brown eyes that have the magical power to convince any warm-blooded adult to do his bidding.  He’s not the brightest kid on the block, but his airy nature just adds to his charm.

“Hate is a little strong,” I tell the eight-year-old, “but yeah, I don’t like Christmas very much.”

“But… but everyone likes Christmas,” he insists.  “Why don’t you?”

“Du-uh, it’s because his birthday is so close to Christmas,” Faith intercedes with a roll of her eyes.  Two years older, Faith is everything her brother isn’t—intelligent with a sharp tongue, independent to a fault, and a complete tomboy.  Even her dirty blonde hair is shorter than her brother’s current style, but Faith seems to cherish her little brother despite their differences.  Of course, she’s only ten—I give her to the end of middle school before she’s embarrassed by her entire family.

To finish her argument, Faith speculates, “I bet that he got only one present for both his birthday and Christmas from everyone because they were distracted by Christmas.”

“Only one?” Alec asks with a blink.  “Was it at least a big present?”

I chuckle at their assumptions.  “You’re on the right track, midgets, but that isn’t why I don’t like Christmas.  Maybe when you’re older, I’ll tell you the whole boring story.”

Ruffling their hair and partly using their heads as support, I stand up and grin when the kids run off with playful squeals to avoid further abuse.

From the corner of my eye, I see Ellone smiling that mothering smile of hers before she walks up with a mouthed, “I’m sorry.”

Even when wearing a shirt covered in neon pink flamingos, the woman is beautiful with fair skin and warm eyes, and while I know that she was adopted into the Loire family, she has a strong energy about her that both Squall and his father share.  She also does the overprotective thing very well.  The first time we met, she welcomed me like a lost brother, but the minute Squall disappeared to the bathroom, she “subtly” informed me that her husband is part of a special ops team in the Navy and that he doesn’t have any qualms about killing people who deserve it.  When I tried to laugh, her bastard of a husband smiled in reply and toyed with a butter knife.

Normally I would consider it an exaggerated threat, but Ellone had the same light in her eyes that Squall shows whenever he’s perfectly prepared to accept the consequences of killing a man.  To make matters worse, Squall doesn’t believe me when I insist that, if he doesn’t forgive me for my more stupid mistakes, I’ll probably be dead within the week.  It’s a lucky thing that Ellone has slowly warmed up to the idea of me invading Squall’s life.

“Happy birthday, Seifer,” Ellone says with a kiss to my cheek, “and thank you for not ruining Christmas for my children.”

“You probably shouldn’t be thanking me just yet.  After all, the night is young and they are adorably impressionable.”

“We both know that you wouldn’t do anything to break their hearts,” she says with a light backhand against my chest.  “And now, I have to finish dinner before this mob gets restless.”

Once Ellone moves out of earshot, Squall leans over and asks softly, “When did the kids start calling you ‘Uncle’?”

“When we were babysitting last night and you left me alone with the brats because Laguna locked himself out of his car,” I reply while removing my jacket.  “The girl was complaining about calling her aunt’s new husband ‘uncle’ when the guy has only been in the picture for three months.  She said she’d rather call me ‘uncle’ and the boy happily agreed without understanding why.  I honestly didn’t think it’d stick longer than last night.”

With an incredulous look, Squall comments, “You call them ‘the girl’ and ‘the boy,’ and you expect me to believe they decided on their own to call you ‘uncle’.”

“I think they know their own names, Sherlock.  They don’t need me to remind them.”

Taking my jacket, Squall sighs and mutters something under his breath about needing to apologize to his sister.

When I turn around, I’m blindsided and almost knocked off my feet when a heavy hand shoves something against my chest.

“Welcome to old age, son,” Ward says with a broad grin and a vindictive light to pale eyes.

“I’m still half your age, old man, and much better looking,” I retort, but my attention promptly shifts to the large amount of bright green fabric beneath my nose.  “Oh hell no, I told you last year that I’m done wearing your clothes.”

“I’ve been informed that the dress code is mandatory,” he states dryly while motioning to his own shirt covered with sailboats the size of cruise ships on his immense frame.  “Since this is your fault, I insist that you join us and drink the Kool-Aid.”

Lifting up the shirt, I wince at the green and yellow designs of pineapples, parrots, and sunglasses.  It’s a true monstrosity that ranks in the same league as an ugly Christmas sweater my grandmother gave me when I was young and innocent.  Still, if everyone else is willing to do this for me, then I guess I should entertain them in return.  The shirt slips easily over my other clothes, and with the snickers from the living room, I have a sneaking suspicion that it looks like I’m wearing a muumuu over my jeans.

“You look great,” Laguna cheers with a slap to my shoulder.  “I’m glad that you’ve decided to play along.  Squall wasn’t entirely certain that you’d appreciate the theme.”

I glance suspiciously at the brunet.  “You weren’t saving your dad from a locked car last night, were you?”

“Is that what he told you?” Laguna asks with a laugh.  “No, no, he was here helping with decorations and making your cake.  I believe he mentioned that leaving you with Faith and Alec was the only guaranteed way to keep you from chasing after him and ruining the surprise.”

“Is that so?” I say while still focused on Squall, the man simply shrugging in response.

Carefully stepping close, Raine smiles and comments, “He insisted that you would complain if he didn’t make the ‘right’ cake for you and that you would know if someone else did it.”

“He knows me well,” I agree before turning my attention to Squall’s mother.

Over the last year, Raine has slowly regained the beauty that I always envisioned for the woman—dark chestnut hair that slips over her face, fair skin that blushes easily, and an impish smile that suggests she knows more than she’ll ever tell.  Returning home has done more for Raine than a hundred doctors, but there are still traces of her trauma.  She continues to shy away from people, a habit born out of her fear to taint others with the toxic presence that surrounded her.  She has battled against that quirk and has reached the point of cautiously holding her husband and children in her arms, but I’m an annoying exception.  Apparently angels should only be seen and not touched, and one of these days, I’m going to give that woman a bear hug to prove her wrong.

Perhaps sensing my thoughts, Raine retreats slightly and says, “We should let the boys socialize with their friends.”

“Of course, of course,” Laguna agrees.  “We’re still missing a few people, so the main event can wait until they arrive.”

The adults wander off to the dining room while laughing about some past birthday event and a vague comment about matching tattoos.  After an amused shake of my head, I look to the other people in the room, all familiar and welcomed faces.  My first objective is to steal the blond, curly-haired butterball from the hands of one Fuujin Dincht before her husband can argue, and with the recklessness of someone who doesn’t have his own kid to manhandle, I swing the baby boy up above my head.

“Dammit, Almasy, be more careful.  He doesn’t like it—“

A squeal of laughter erupts from the infant, and with chubby arms and legs waving, Troy begins the long path of constantly trying to prove his parents wrong.  I toss him up into the air, no more than a couple of inches from my waiting hands, and then lower him down to my chest.  “Sorry to say it, Dincht, but I don’t think this one is going to inherit the Chickwuss legacy.”

Zell scoffs and points an angry finger at me.  “Just you wait until Monday.  I’m going to kick your ass from here—  Interrupted again, Zell’s threat ends with a loud “oof” when Fuujin slams a heavy fist into his gut.

“Language,” she warns.

I chuckle under my breath, knowing exactly how it feels to be on the receiving end of her punches.  After a particularly messy situation with a bounty, I decided that I needed to learn some defensive moves if I was going to stand at Squall’s side.  Fuujin was busy raising a newborn and all, and there was no way I could wrestle with Squall without it leading to something else, so I reluctantly went to the Chicken.  Zell was a fucking dick about it at the beginning, but once he realized that I was serious, he made me understand why Squall respected him as a trainer.  Zell and I aren’t exactly friends and I don’t imagine we will be, but that just makes our spars more entertaining when I get the guy worked up.

“Happy birthday, Seifer,” a voice calls and I look to the munchkin sitting on the armrest of a sofa couch, his boyfriend occupying the actual seat portion while subtly resting a hand at the kid’s back.  Over the last year, Sora had a touch of a growth spurt, but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll make it to average height, not that he needs to be with the sheer guts he has.  The kid is still in the foster care system even though Riku’s parents offered to adopt him directly after the incident with Cloud and Roth.  While he appreciated the thought, Sora didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of basically dating his brother, so he politely refused.  Of course, Riku is graduating this year and Sora will be old enough for emancipation, so I think the boys have vague plans to shack up wherever Riku decides to go to college.

“Surprised that you two are here,” I comment lightly.  “Are you really wasting your winter vacation on an old man like me?”

Sora grins with a full show of teeth.  “Squall said there would be cake.”

“And that’s all it takes to win him over,” Riku murmurs with a fond grin at his small boyfriend.

I chuckle at the pair while dodging the tiny hand shoved at my face, Troy intently interested in my lower lip.  “There are worse things to sell a soul for.”

After an I-told-you-so look at Riku, Sora perks up and asks, “So hey, do you really have a thing against Christmas because of presents?  Shouldn’t you have gotten over that by now?”

While Riku groans with embarrassment into his hand, I smile and say, “It wasn’t specifically because of presents, but it kind of was, too.”  When Sora directs a confused blink at my conflicting reply, I clarify further, “My mom loved Christmas and was always determined to get me the nicer presents she didn’t get as a kid.  The problem is that nice presents require money, and money requires working two or three jobs.  Since seasonal jobs were the easiest to land, she wasn’t around much from Thanksgiving until after the New Year.”

“Does that also mean she wasn’t home on your birthdays?”

I turn at the softly offended voice and gaze at my intelligent lover.  “Well, I can’t blame her too much—she honestly thought it was worth it for a perfect Christmas.  Actually, I’m pretty certain that she was disappointed when I wasn’t born on Christmas day.”

“That’s kind of depressing, man,” Zell contributes.

It’s a valid statement, but before I can attempt to lighten the mood, the front door swings open and the relieved call of “We made it!” carries throughout the house.  I barely turn around when a small, lively woman attaches herself to my neck and cheers, “Happy birthday, you marvelous bastard!”

“Careful there,” I warn within a laugh.  “I have a fragile package here.”

“You do?” Selphie asks, and then hops back a step to hold out her arms with beckoning hands.  “Give me that handsome man and I’ll forgive you for that mound of paperwork you caused today.”

“Technically, that wasn’t my fault,” I retort while reluctantly passing Troy over to his godmother, vaguely concerned that her yellow, flower-bedecked shirt may blind the young infant.

“Oh, don’t worry—that horrible, horrible man has been locked up and won’t be touching anymore cuties.  I threatened to bring Squall back into the room and the sicko confessed to two other attacks that we’ve been investigating for the last few months.”

A soft sigh sounds from the front door.  “Did you really take video this time?”

I smile at Selphie’s apparent ride for the night, Quistis Trepe somehow managing to appear prim and proper while wearing a shirt covering in purple palm leaves.  Her blond hair is held back in a painfully tight bun per her usual style, sharp blue eyes peer through designer glasses, and her makeup is impeccable despite this being a casual event.  Meanwhile, her little girl is a powerhouse of energy bundled into a frilly pink dress, and once spotting Alec in the kitchen, Gina pulls on her mother’s arm while balancing on her toes.  After a slight nod from Quistis, the girl shows a bright smile and chases after her reluctant prince, Goldilocks-styled hair bouncing behind her.

Walking to stand next to Squall, Quistis folds her arms over her chest.  “How do you always get mixed up into these situations?”

“I guess I’m just lucky that way,” I hedge, knowing that it’s better to leave the lawyer in the dark, not that she’d readily believe me anyway.

The evening continues forward with various topics of discussion and general catching up for the people who haven’t seen each other in months.  Dinner is particularly loud with good food, plenty of laughter, and people raising their voices to talk over each other.  Eventually it becomes a little much for me, especially when the kids rediscover the piano in the back corner, and needing fresh air, I sneak off to the patio.  Watching through the glass door, I think about how amazing it is how this particular group has come together from completely different sources of tragedy, and yet we all had one source of salvation.

The man in question stands out like a sore thumb while wearing a simple gray sweater, but I’ve never had much trouble spotting Squall within a crowd.  And with blue-gray eyes shifting my way, I smile at Squall’s sixth sense of knowing when I’m watching him.

Sneaking off, Squall walks to my hiding place.  “This is your party, you know.”

“And a great time at that, but I have to admit that I was expecting something a lot quieter for tonight.  You really surprised me, Squally-boy.”

“I believe that’s the point of a surprise party.”

I laugh tiredly at his dry remark and lift a hand in his direction to beckon him closer.

Squall obeys to a point, but stands just out of reach when he asks, “What is your dark secret?”

My eyes widen at the unexpected question.  “You… You remember that?”

With a shrug, Squall says, “You told me to wait a year.”

“And it’s been a week longer than that, you fucking tease.  Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

“I was afraid that you might need more time to make something up.”

A laugh escapes me at his assumption.  “Well, you’re about to be disappointed.”  I lunge forward to get my arms around his waist and drag the man closer such that we’re eye to eye.  “What have I already told you about how my grandparents met?”

With a suspicious glance, Squall decides to play along.  “You mentioned that your grandfather was on a date with another woman when he met your grandmother.”

“That’s right, my grandmother was a fortuneteller at a carnival and my grandfather’s date was a sucker for that sort of stuff.  My grandfather liked to say that he thought my grandmother was a complete fraud, but a beautiful fraud, and it was inevitable that he went back to the carnival to have a more personal reading.  Of course, my grandmother denies that she faked the card reading that led to their first date.”

Squall tilts his head as if to ask, “What does any of this matter?”

“I’m getting there,” I assure with a grin.  “See, my grandfather was a very serious man.  He didn’t shower my grandmother with roses or jewelry while they were dating; instead, he’d do practical things like buy groceries and take her and her young daughter out to dinner.  A lot of people didn’t understand why they were together and they thought my grandmother was crazy when she accepted his marriage proposal, but my grandmother had a secret, one that she refused to reveal to my grandfather until they were married year later.  She was afraid that her wedding wouldn’t happen if she revealed her secret before then.”

Squall tenses slightly, his eyes dark gray from evening shadows.  “I thought I asked about your secret, not hers.”

“Well, it’s something I learned from my grandfather when I was older, and I thought it was my grandmother’s usual nonsense… until I started living with you.”  Lifting a hand to his face, I trace my fingertips along the scar between his eyes before I brush aside dark bangs.  “The thing is, Squall, when you—“

“Time for presents!” Selphie announces from the patio door, interrupting a moment I have imagined for months upon months.

Glaring at the lady detective, I growl out a frustrated, “Can’t you tell that we’re a little busy here, gunslinger?”

“Oh please, you can grope Squall whenever you want,” she argues with a fist planted to her hip.  “Meanwhile, the rest of us want cake, but presents always come first.”

“It’s okay,” Squall says for both of us, the man sneaking out from my arms.  “This can wait.”

“Come on, I’ve waited a year while they have waited maybe five minutes,” I complain even as I follow the moving brunet.  “Don’t I have seniority?”

With a glance of sultry blue, Squall points out, “We’ll have the rest of the night together.”

Lost in a sudden fantasy of what the night might entail, I’m easily lured inside with Squall’s lead, and once in range, I’m pushed into the sofa chair Riku and Sora had been occupying.  I look up at expectant faces, and reminded of the numerous brightly colored shirts in the room, I reluctantly concede that I shouldn’t be annoyed by these people who only want me to enjoy my birthday.  At the least, it’s not their fault that Squall decided now of all times to ask me about my secret.

And with the first present tossed onto my lap, I fully surrender to my momentary fate and tear off the wrapping paper with pleasure.  The new sparring pads are an expected, but greatly needed gift from Fuujin and Zell as I’ve worn out my last set.  Everyone gets a laugh from Riku and Sora presenting me with a gift card to Ward’s diner, especially when my meals are free as a full-time server there.  They insist that I can treat Squall to a dinner, the boys clueless about Squall’s status of silent partner.

The subsequent gift is somewhat a mystery when no one immediately claims it, and opening the box, I stare at the leather gun holster that appears well made and too expensive for my tastes.  The note inside only increases my surprise.  “Holy shit, that Irish bastard got me this?”

Squall shrugs.  “Donovan seems to like you and insisted that I bring it.”

I wave the note at the brunet.  “It’s not me he likes, Sherlock.  He says that I need to be a better bodyguard and that he’ll get me a gun the next time we meet.”

With an unsurprised grunt, Squall comments, “You’ll want to figure out a nice way to refuse.  I imagine most of his guns have questionable backgrounds.”

“I didn’t hear that,” Selphie says with hands comically pressed to her ears whenever Donovan’s name comes up.

I almost toss the present aside, but glancing at the holster, I think about all of the times when Squall has got himself into a messy situation, times when I was little better than useless.  A gun wouldn’t solve everything, but having a weapon in my hand might make me feel less anxious about Squall getting himself killed by a jumpy bounty with a knife.  Definitely something to ask Calamity Jane about when there aren’t little kids around to ask why I’d want to kill someone.

The next present is another shocker as Ward had somehow snagged a Rose High School jersey with my old number on it, the sentimental bastard.  Selphie, Quisty, and Ellone went the safe route with gift cards to a couple stores where I get my clothes.  Selphie, however, included a list of items that show off my best features.  A small painting of twin, lengthy white lights within darkness comes from Raine, and while I don’t get the reference, it’s an interesting painting nonetheless.  Laguna’s gift is a handful of pages from his next book, and with a few skimmed lines, I know that it’s about my mother.  There’s nothing to say but a quiet “thank you” to the man, to which Laguna promises to do his best with her story.

As planned, the last gift is from the Squall.  The size and general shape of a thick CD case, I half-fear that the logical brunet had gotten me some kind of financial software to help me with my pledge to pay him back for every cent he has spent on me.  I unwrap the small present carefully, relieved when I don’t see any writing on the plain black box.  I open the lid with less apprehension, but immediately freeze at the sight of an index card with the words, “Don’t say you don’t have a future beyond me.”

My heartbeats rapid and strong, I lift up the card to find a silver ring with a brushed finish down the middle while the sides have been polished mirror bright.  A slight shadow makes me lift the ring with a shaky hand and read the inscription inside, “Together, we walk this path.”  The dark flecks of dried blood make the words even more perfect, even if there’s no power to the offering.

While I hear the excited comments from the others around us, I can’t focus on their words.  Lost in my thoughts, I try to figure how Squall knew about my dark dreams.  Perhaps he guessed what I would tell him, something he’s frighteningly good at, but Squall isn’t a man to write his guesses down like a magic trick.  No, he knew that I was going to tell him about my grandmother’s story and also knew what that story would be.

My grandmother wasn’t a strong medium compared to my mother and me, but she had our same trouble with haunting dreams and lacking sleep.  With no other choice, she dealt with those dreams for most of her life, but once she accepted a marriage proposal for the second time and shared her fiancé’s bed, she was blessed with nights of pure, comforting darkness.  At first, she thought it was a fluke, but eventually realized that it was simply another dream.  A dream of nothing.

I was young when my grandfather told me about his wife’s dark dreams, the one thing my grandfather actually talked about when it came to our family’s abilities, although I always thought it was ridiculous.  While most of my nights have been ruined by foreseeing dreams or nightmares of past dreams, there have also been nights of easy sleep and a chance to recover before the next terrible vision.  I thought my grandmother was confused by those nights of true sleep… and then I had a dark dream.

It came after my first night with Squall, the first time he honestly admitted to loving me, and just as my grandfather described, it was a dream of absolute nothingness.  Despite the overwhelming darkness, my thoughts didn’t once turn toward the fears of demons and death; instead I felt warmth and peace within that lack of an urgent and pressing future.  Eventually I understood the meaning behind the empty vision, a revelation that made me smile through a few embarrassing tears.

For the first time in my life, nothing was more important than the present, and it was because Squall finally allowed himself to be mine.

Pulling out from that memory, I look to the brunet and ask in a barely sounding voice, “How did you know?”

His arms crossed protectively over his chest, Squall glances at the others in the room, but still choses to answer, “If I were to guess, I would say that your mother is incredibly persistent.”

Wha…?  My mother?”

“Recently, I’ve had some very hazy, very repetitive dreams.”

Still not understanding, I stare at the impossible man and slowly come to the conclusion that I have a ring in my hand and I’m very possibly focused on the wrong thing here.  A stupid smile crossing over my lips, I stand up from my chair and walk toward the pale-eyed man.  Squall watches my every step, his gaze both stern and cautious in an odd display of emotion, not that he has anything to fear.  It’s strange how he can know everything except for that.

“You got me a ring,” I say with an unintended hint of awe to my voice.

One of his eyebrows lift in a silent statement that I’m stating the obvious.

Holding back laughter that could only be embarrassingly giddy and loud, I move in close to the brunet such that we’re almost nose to nose.  “And what should I do with this ring?”

“Whatever you want,” the brunet replies in a terribly anticlimactic, unfortunately Squall-like fashion.

My smile begins to fade at his unreadable front.  “Wait, you can’t mean… This is just about jewelry?”

“Is it supposed to be about something else?” Squall asks, to which I stare in sore disappointment.  A pair of groans also sounds from our audience, Selphie and Sora being my best guesses.  Reacting to that, the brunet sighs and attempts to explain, “I wanted to give you something like your necklace to me, but you won’t wear a necklace in fear of being strangled.  Watches don’t last longer than a week around you, and since I don’t like bracelets on men and you don’t have any piercings, a ring was the best option left to me.”

Continuing to stare, I wonder at the fairly long explanation from the reticent man.  Practically a speech, really, and stated in a direct manner that sounds practiced and well-thought out.  It’s a perfectly good reason to get me a ring without involving a lifelong commitment or risking the only thing fragile about the brunet—his uncontrollable emotions.  A perfectly good reason, that is, except that it isn’t what either of us wants.

“Son of a bitch,” I murmur before lifting the ring and wagging it at Squall’s face.  “You’ve gotten better at lying, Sherlock.”

Pale blue-gray stares back with only a hint of apprehension in the otherwise neutral gaze.

“Sorry, but I’m not going to play your game,” I say as I force the ring into his hand.  “I won’t wear that thing until you place it on one of my fingers.  And before you think to lie again,” I add while leaning in close to his ear, “I should warn you that wherever you put the ring, that’s where it stays.”

Squall shows me a look that he saves for whenever I’m being too dramatic for his tastes, but he seems to take my warning seriously when he glances down at my hands and considers his next move.  My body tenses when I realize that I had made a very bold and risky bluff against this man who doesn’t have a reputation of showing his true feelings.  For all I know, Squall would be satisfied with the simple claim of a ring on my hand and doesn’t care about the traditional placement of said claim.  With that thought in mind, I’m not terribly surprised when he reaches out to my right hand, the act causing a moan of “you stupid man” from Selphie, not that I know if she’s criticizing Squall or me.

And then full lips show the barest flicker of a smile.

“You fu—“

Squall pinches my hand to prevent crude language in front of sensitive ears, and with my attention distracted, he swiftly uses his other hand to slip the silver ring onto its proper finger.  The lettering feels hot against my skin while the metal is winter cold, making me wonder just how long this ring has been hiding in his truck.  My laugh isn’t loud as my breath is lost to relief, which makes the sound quickly smothered by the variety of cheers, catcalls, and a single groan from our witnesses.  This moment is practically mystical compared to my life little more than a year ago, a time when I dreamed and hoped for something better, and yet I didn’t have a clue that “better” could possibly entail someone like Squall Loire.

Bending down, I steal a chaste kiss from the cruel man.  “You’re so fucking beautiful,” I say softly for Squall alone, my lips still brushing against his.

Tensing, Squall pulls back and warns, “I can always return it.”

“Your inscription kind of ruins the ring and your threat,” I reason.

“A pawn shop, then.”

Ignoring his worrisomely serious tone, I lift my hand to his neck and lightly purr when my ring clinks against his thick necklace.  No doubt about it, I’ve found myself on a strange path with this man and the people around us, but while each step I take is as terrifying as the last, I’m not afraid to move forward.  Not when Squall is there at my side.

“Always be there,” I beg shamelessly.

Squall stares for a quiet moment before lifting his hand to mine.  He doesn’t say anything, but words are far from necessary when he strokes the newly placed ring and his eyes shine like finely crafted metal.  I’m his collared wolf, and while I probably should be offended on some level, I find myself stealing another kiss from the strict man and with far less reserve than before.  His tongue finds mine and my resulting groan of pleasure sounds like a growl to my ears.  Squall presses closer and tightens his hand around mine, almost painfully so when my fingers are crushed against my ring, but I have no complaint.

With his strong grasp on my hand, I know for certain that, as long as he walks beside me, Squall won’t let me fall.

Not now and never again.

 

{Owari}

 

Author's Whining—*deep breath of relief* Wow, that took a lot longer than I thought, but it’s done!  Thank you to everyone who kept with this story and were patient enough to wait for the ending.  I really hope you enjoyed reading this story and that you’ll forgive my indulgence in romance.  I’m a hopeless dreamer and don’t plan on changing anytime soon. ;)